Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sincerely Disingenuous

Several days ago, Anne Applebaum at Slate wrote a compelling piece on the Holocaust Deniers Conference in Iran. She discusses the implications of the conference for Israel and international politics, as well as for the future of the world and all living things. For a full appreciation of the impact of this conference, read her piece and also the New York Times article from Tuesday. Among her observations, Applebaum notes that Ahmadinejad frames the conference in terms of Free Speech and counters dissidents with the following brilliant piece of rhetoric: "Today, the worst type of dictatorship in the world is the American dictatorship, clothed in human rights." Ahmadinejad did not spawn this idea fully formed from his own brain, but echoes an argument made around the world, by dissidents in Russia and Venezuela, as well as the U.S.

In fact, as part of the Human Rights Program in college, I wrote a paper about how the U.S. government used human rights rhetoric to clothe policies that had little to do with protecting human rights and, at times, were the source of human rights violations. I would not call the American government a “dictatorship,” but I do think that the administration sounds disingenuous when espousing human rights rhetoric, while supporting policies and foreign governments that counter human rights law (and Ahmadinejad sounds like an idiot professing to support free speech and commenting on another government’s human rights record, considering his own). For a full record of U.S. foreign policy that led to unsavory dictatorships (speaking of which, Pinochet finally died), read David Schmitz’s Thank God They’re On Our Side (it’s marginally polemical, but also historically accurate).

Without further ado, a bit of history on the subject (a much revised version of the aforementioned paper):

In U.S. history, politics are not about human rights and foreign relations are not conflated with humanitarianism, regardless of the rhetoric used to legitimatize and justify national action. During the period of the Cold War, U.S. presidential administrations adopted the language of “right” and cast itself as the defender of “human rights,” a role that allowed the U.S. to act in its own foreign policy best interest under the guise of international protector. Initially,, the U.S. government defined human rights along the lines of Wilsonian liberalism. This formulation of human rights centered around the right to self-determination and national sovereignty germinated in the formation of the United Nations. This core principle distinguished the rights language of the interwar and Cold War period from today’s human right rhetoric. For example, writers often frame WWII through a humanitarian lens that obscures the principal motivations for going to war and the way that those motivations shaped the foundations of the United Nations. The war itself was not fought to combat genocide (particularly as Lemkin had yet to coin the term), but rather was a conflict of nations infringing on one another’s sovereignty. Thus, Great Britain did not declare war on Germany, although it knew of the Nazi regime’s human rights violations, until Hitler invaded Poland. In fact, Great Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement even after they learned of such atrocities as Kristal Nacht and the deportation of large homogenous groups to camps. The United States, likewise, did not enter the war until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The first fundamental rights encoded in the United Nations Charter and in international human rights law when the war ended was the right of self-determination, through choosing who governs, and of governmental sovereignty. The U.N. chose to frame rights primarily in terms of national rights because the basic unit for ensuring human, individual, rights remained the nation-state.

In the beginning of the postwar era, the rhetoric used in foreign relations, especially when justifying foreign intervention, conformed to the primary rights encoded in the United Nations. The charter determined that in order to create “conditions of stability and well-being… based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self determinations of peoples.” (Article 55) The United Nations was prohibited by its own charter from intervening in the “domestic jurisdiction of any state.” (Article 2(7)). The United States, in its diplomatic language, reinforced that self-determination and the rights of nationhood are the key units to ensure human rights.

Twenty years later, in 1966, the United Nations confirmed this foundation in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In Part I, Article I, this declaration states, “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of the right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” The same year, the United Nations also established the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Again, the first part and first article of the document affirms “the right of self-determination,” using the exact phrasing as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For the United Nations, while the nation-state may be the unit whereby human rights are enforced, the primary principle of right is confirmed as self-determination. These covenants reinforce the validity of the language that the United States used to justify its intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia, amongst many other nations, which it felt need assistance in achieving independence and self-determination, particularly in the face of the hegemonic communist threat.

The United States, in declaring its intention to intervene on behalf of the French in Vietnam, illustrates this paradigm of national self-determination. With the onset of the Cold War, human rights rhetoric was molded by the bipolarity which enveloped international politics: human rights could only flourish within a democratic, Western- allied, non-socialist state. The Soviets, specifically, and the communists, in general, were de facto considered a bulwark to national sovereignty and democratic elections, without which human rights could not exist and flourish. The communist leanings of Ho Chi Minh were enough to drive the United States to determine that the future of Vietnam and the assurance of the people’s rights were at risk. The official position stated, “the United States Government, convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exists in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism,” and Truman extended economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France, “in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and economic development.” The truth behind the rhetoric was that the United States decided to bolster France, U.N. right to self-determination be damned. Regardless, the policy was framed in terms of human rights, validating the concept of international human rights, while simultaneously undermining its purpose.

The irony of the language, in terms of the Vietnam conflict, is that Ho Chi Minh saw the U.N. Charter and U.S. foreign policy as openings for his leadership of Vietnam independent of France’s oppressive rule. In his On Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, Minh quoted the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He couched Vietnamese independence in the words of the UN Charter, arguing that the Allied Nations at Tehran and San Francisco reaffirmed the principles of self-determination. This principle would surely extend to Vietnam. Less than a decade later, the U.S. cited that same principle to justify its intervention on behalf of France.

Although Ho Chi Minh used the language of rights embodied in the UN Charter, the United States argued that the socialist government was in fact a puppet of imperialist Russia and not truly a result of the self-determination of the Vietnamese people. During the Geneva Conference, the United States declared, “In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek to achieve unity though free elections [because] people are entitled to determine their own future.” Again, the U.S. couched their policy in the language of rights in order to obscure that they were a barricade against free elections as they feared that the outcome would favor the communist Minh, who had large amounts of popular support, over their “nationalist” Ngo Dinh Diem. They undermined the unification and the elections, arguing that a communist government could not truly represent the people of Vietnam. Officially, the U.S. stance determined, “Although elections constitute one of the bases of true democracy, they will be meaningful only on the condition that they are absolutely free. Faced now with a regime of oppression as practiced by the Vietminh, we remain skeptical concerning the possibility of fulfilling the conditions for free elections in the North.” To the extent that the United States government was using unsavory tactics or supporting a government it knew to abuse human rights, the threat of communism to international human rights and to the particularist rights of nations was used as absolution. So long as the Soviets blocked the true voices of the people, the United States had a duty to intervene on behalf of those peoples whose basic rights were being violated.

Four successive Presidents of the United States used this language of “right” to support, justify, explain, and legitimatize military and political intervention in Vietnam. In the Fall of 1954, President Eisenhower wrote to Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam whom the United States had empowered, “Your recent request for aid to assist in the… movement of several hundred thousand Vietnamese citizens away from areas which are passing under the de facto rule and political ideology which they abhor, are being fulfilled. I am glad that the United States is able to assist in this humanitarian effort.” Communist rule was an imposition upon a people striving towards the Western democratic ideal (which was true of all people); therefore, the United States and Diem, in transporting the Vietnamese out of Communist-controlled areas were undertaking a humanitarian effort. This effort, while it effectively funded Diem’s terror of the countryside, ensured the particularist rights of self-determination and political freedom, even while violating universal rights.

Vice-President Johnson and President Ngo Dinh Diem, in a joint declaration on May 13, 1961, asserted: “The United States is also conscious of its responsibility and duty, in its own self-interest as well as in the interest of other free peoples, to assist a brave country in the defense of its liberties against unprovoked subversion and Communist terror. It has no other motive than the defense of freedom.” This declaration was issued almost exactly two years after Law 10/59, the juridification of the violent Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign, was passed. Tens of thousands of people were arrested and killed on the basis of this law. The internal politics of the anti-Communist Diem regime, however, were beyond rapprochement insofar as the Cold War obscured the need for internal reforms. The particularist view of rights, therefore, was not primary simply because the United States had a tendency to emphasize the rights of nations, but also because such a view of human rights facilitated its pragmatic policies against Communism and the Red Menace.

The Communist government of North Vietnam was repeatedly characterized as a violator of human rights and international accords, validating the need for the United States to come to the assistance of South Vietnam as the protector and savior of those rights. President Kennedy wrote to Diem in December of 1961, “Your letter underlines what our own information has convincingly shown—that the campaign of force and terror now being waged against your people and your government is supported and directed from the outside by the authorities at Hanoi. They have thus violated the provisions of the Geneva Accords…” In villainizing the communist government and charging it not only with violating human rights, but also violating the Geneva Accords set out by the United Nations, President Kennedy ignores the fact that United States military intervention was itself a violation of the Accords; furthermore, the United States Government along with Diem had not signed the Accords and had used that fact to excuse themselves from the elections and policies outlined therein. Regardless, Kennedy maintains, “The United States… remains devoted to the cause of peace and our primary purpose is to help your people maintain their independence… we are confident that the Vietnamese people will preserve their independence and gain the peace and prosperity for which they have sought so hard and so long.” Kennedy thereby continues in the vein of particularist human rights rhetoric that President Eisenhower had used in the previous decade to justify his initial intervention in Vietnam.

Nixon, the last President to oversee the Vietnam War, avoided human rights rhetoric more than his predecessors, largely because his arguments were for Vietnamization and elimination of the United States presence in Vietnam. To that end, he argued that the United States had to gradually leave in order to ensure a peaceful and stable South Vietnam and his rhetoric was largely in terms of United States power and courage. Because he was working towards peace, at least in theory, Nixon did not need to justify his actions to the American people or to the world. Nevertheless, when he invaded Cambodia in 1970 and he had to explain to a nation why he was committing more troops to Southeast Asia, he did so in terms of “rights.” He said, “North Vietnam in the last 2 weeks has stripped away all pretense of respecting the sovereignty and neutrality of Cambodia… We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war in Vietnam but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we all desire.” This action, which purported to be in defense of the “sovereignty and neutrality” of Cambodia, comprise of a massive bombing campaign and subsequent invasion, which devastated eastern Cambodia.

The tragedy of Cambodia lies not only in the contribution of the United States government to the construction of its situation, but also in the cynicism with which the United States public approached the reported human rights abuses. The essence of this tragedy in was that the human rights rhetoric the United States used as reason to intervene was not mere posturing, but was actually a statement of fact. The perceived hollowness of human rights rhetoric was a direct result of its overuse in Vietnam and other areas in which the United States had intervened. In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Powers notes that when the Ford administration reported in 1975, “The Communists are waging a total war against Cambodia’s civilian population with a degree of systematic terror perhaps unparalleled since the Nazi period—a clear precursor of the blood bath and Stalinist dictatorship they intend to impose on the Cambodian people,” (Power, 103) they were met with mistrust and disbelief. The report was seen as “anti-Communist paranoia” and was discredited by an administration still in the shadows of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Ironically, the abstract language of rights that was used during the Vietnam War to justify United States action was treated with credulity, while the public dismissed the specific reports of abuse in Cambodia as war-mongering.

The Lon Nol government that the United States had funded for the previous decade as a bulwark against the Communists was itself guilty of human rights violations (echoing Diem’s Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign and Law 10/59). Therefore, when confronted with both the blood that was on Nol’s hands and the blood being shed as a result of the civil war, the argument on behalf of human rights to continue to resist the Khmer Rouge was invalidated. As one senator asked, “Suppose we are asked to address either 75,000 or 100,000 of those Cambodians who may very well lose their lives or be maimed by our military assistance for the next 3- month period… and they said to you, “Why do I have to die?”… What would you tell them? That we are doing it in order to avoid a bloodbath?” (Power, 103) Furthermore, Lon Nol’s departure from a position in power was seen as a success for those interested in stopping human rights abuses. (Power, 113) The United States government could not legitimately argue that bloodshed now was superior to predicted bloodshed later, particularly after the Vietnam War had just ended. Furthermore, the Ford administration was discredited as its past condemnations of violence and abuse had been rationalizations for extending more aid to Lon Nol and the public feared that the reports of violence were simply an excuse for entering Cambodia with a military presence.

Four years later, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ended the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, the actions of the United States and United Nations in response was paradigmatic of the triumph of particularist views of human rights over the universalist conception. The question that the administration had to ask itself was, “Which was the lesser evil, a regime that had slaughtered some 2 million Cambodians or a Communist regime backed by the Soviet Union that had flagrantly violated an international border and that now occupied a neighboring state?” (Power, 146) This administration, furthermore, was not just any administration, but that of Jimmy Carter, champion of human rights. Surely, the human rights language used throughout the Cold War finally applied without bias. By that time, the violence and murder perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge was well documented and unquestioned. The United States, however, had other considerations. Not only did its alliance with China impede its freedom to support what was essentially a Vietnamese puppet regime, but the axis of its human rights rhetoric was self-determination. Likewise, “The UN charter had made noninterference into sovereign states a sacred principle. No doctrine of humanitarian intervention had yet emerged to challenge it.” (Power, 151) The moral and political tension that the U.S. and the UN faced in Cambodia was the tension between the particularist views of human rights (the rights of states and nations, especially the right to national self-determination and securing) and the universalist view of human rights (the rights of human-beings, particularly the right to physical protection, political liberty, and social justice.)

The issue came to fruition when the UN had to decide who would occupy Cambodia’s seat in the UN. That is, which regime would be labeled as the legitimate government of Cambodia? In September of 1979, a vote on the floor of the UN officially granted the Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s seat. Behind the scenes, the United States had fought hard to ensure that they won. Furthermore, despite evidence to the contrary, the UN refused to file genocide charges against the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Thus, the particularist view of human rights superseded the universalist view. Although the murderous regime caused the death of 29% of its population (to put that number in perspective: if 29% of the U.S. population were murdered, that would be 80,000,000 people dead at the hands of our government), the U.N. recognized the Khmer rouge as legitimate because it was created internally. Meanwhile, the Vietnam regime was condemned for crossing an international border and intervening in a sovereign nation, regardless of the fact that its intervention stopped the genocide.

The chasm that arose during the Cold War between United States rhetoric (and perhaps intention) and the results of its actions indicates that so long as the United States framed human rights ideals in terms of particularism, their pragmatic policies served to deprive individuals of their universalist human rights. By placing universalist and particularist views of human rights in opposition, the United States and the United Nations compromised human rights as a whole. The language that the United States used during the Cold War may have followed the letter of human rights, but not the intention. The human rights abuses in Vietnam and Cambodia resulted in part from the United States government’s rigid conception of rights and how those rights are ensured. Only by realizing that national security objectives and human rights can be attained simultaneously, will the United States implement polity where its rhetoric and the consequences of its actions conform to human rights principles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"This administration, furthermore, was not just any administration, but that of Jimmy Carter, champion of human rights."

True, but a most ineffective control freak. His success with the Camp David Accords was due to the good faith of the two sides. That he could do. That was pretty much all he did successfully on a foreign policy level, though he did begin to get us off oil, which was a significant domestic achievement, and one tragically reversed by Reagan.

But there is, as we know, a Talmudic expression that when you are kind to cruel people, you end up being cruel to kind people. I do not claim that this was the extent of debacle of Carter's foreign policy, but I would say it was one of many serious flaws, and he should not be perceived as the human rights hero he is so frequently perceived as.

I just want to point out that Ford and Carter are both considered to be particularly weak presidents. Nixon is always more interesting, in part because he wasn't as purely evil as we were taught back in the day, and because he was the quintessential realpolitiknik. Of course, the idea that he wasn't genuine on anything isn't the most ground breaking of positions as opposed to Carter (nebach), but damn, I miss that son of a bitch. We could have used a man like Tricky Dick today.

"The particularist view of rights, therefore, was not primary simply because the United States had a tendency to emphasize the rights of nations, but also because such a view of human rights facilitated its pragmatic policies against Communism and the Red Menace."

Yes -- we correctly assessed that we had competitive advantage in this area. Unlike the Commies, we had to sell our acts of aggression internally and to allies.